1 Corinthians 1 and intellectual pride

OK, suppose I want to use my mind to serve God, but I am worried about becoming intellectually proud. Does God have any direction for me?

Absolutely. There are lots of Bible verses about pride in general, of course, and I love that, but there is also a specific Bible passage whose central theme is intellectual pride: 1 Corinthians 1-2.

I started to write something about this passage last week, but it sort of got away from me. Here it is, a week later, and I still haven’t really finished. What I would like to post for now, though, is lots of stuff about how to interpret it, with just a few closing comments on how to apply it.

Framing the passage

First, note the context. Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth. They had a ton of problems. They accepted immorality as normal for their members, turned their worship services into sideshows, and compromised the doctrine of the resurrection. They also had a real problem with spiritual pride, manifested in the form of major divisions in the church. Paul talked about that throughout the book but it is the focus of the first four chapters.

In 1:10, the instructive instructive part of the book  begins with these words:

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you … (1 Cor 1:10)

Later in chapters 3 and 4 Paul reproves the Corinthians for this divisiveness. He starts by saying,

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of Christ, as to infants in Christ … for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly and are you not walking like mere men? (1 Cor 3:1-3)

After offering himself and Apollos as examples of people working together in unity to serve Christ, he concludes this way:

Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. (1 Cor 4:6)

In the middle of all this fall the verses from 1:17 to 2:16. There Paul narrows the topic of spiritual pride in general to intellectual pride specifically. He shows the conflict between the gospel and the arrogant wisdom of the world in 1:17-2:5. In 2:6-2:16 he contrasts that with the godly wisdom we’ve been granted in Christ, concluding that we have been given the supernatural capacity to understand spiritual things because we have “the mind of Christ”.

We will focus specifically on 1:17-2:5 and 2:14-16.

Interpreting the passage

For now, let me just make two obvious but fundamental observations about the meaning of this passage.

First, notice how anti-intellectual it seems at first glance. It sure looks like it is saying that the Christian gospel is not particularly rationally justifiable, but it doesn’t matter, and we shouldn’t try to justify it rationally anyway.

This can’t quite be right. Paul’s missionary practice, according to Acts, often involved reasoning with unbelievers to persuade them to believe. The words used to describe what he did are things like arguing, reasoning, persuading, and so on. So there must be more to it.

After a second glance, it seems likely that the real emphasis isn’t being rational but rather being proud. I think the guiding principle in interpreting the entire passage is to distinguish between seeking rationality in pride or in a way that panders to others’ pride, vs. seeking it humbly and in a way that encourages others to be humble.

At one point, I planned to walk through the verses phrase by phrase talking about the best way to interpret them, but I’ve decided that isn’t really necessary. Just go read them for yourself: (1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5, 1 Corinthians 2:14-16.)

Applying the passage

Far more interesting to me is how these verses apply to our own day. Here are the six points I see as most significant. I’ll expand on them soon.

  • Think hard, think well.
  • Don’t demand that things always make sense.
  • Don’t value intellectuals about non-intellectuals in Christianity.
  • Discern cultural strongholds of intellectual pride.
  • Understand what it means to have the mind of Christ.
  • Keep the gospel pure.
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